After a very weird 2020, we’re (finally) now headed into 2021—but there are still a lot of questions left unanswered, in the world and in our sport. Who will help shape triathlon? Who are the people working in front of and behind the scenes to do exciting, new, or interesting things? Who should you keep your eye on in the next multisport year?
We racked our brains, scoured the tri-space, and came up with this varied list of multisport movers and shakers—all of whom we’re looking forward to watching in 2021. We can’t wait to see what they do and how they change the sport in the year ahead.
45 | Boulder, Colorado
USA National Team Coach, Elite National Coach of The Year 2018, 2019
It’s safe to say that few coaches have a background like Ian O’Brien’s: He served for 16 years in the British Army as a Recon Commander where he acted “as a fully operational covert surveillance and strategic/surgical fighting force in numerous operational theaters around the globe” according to his (very intense) LinkedIn profile. Though he deployed to Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, he eventually found a home as one of the top elite short-course coaches in the U.S.
“I spent a lot of my service time in high-intensity environments,” O’Brien said. “So being a coach to people who actually have very similar characteristics as those I served with has made this a really good fit for me.” One of the people he’s led into the multisport battlefield is Matt McElroy, who became the first American man to stand on a WTS podium since 2009 when he took second at WTS Leeds in 2019. Eli Hemming, another up-and-coming member of the U.S. men’s team, joins McElroy under O’Brien’s leadership, alongside a handful of international and domestic pros.
O’Brien’s squad now has its sights set firmly on Tokyo and is doing everything it can to prepare for the climate. “We have been experimenting with various methods of heat acclimation,” he said. “We will also be building a small training facility within RallySport in Boulder to control training intensities and climate as we adapt to the conditions we will face in racing next year.” It’s nothing if not intense. – Chris Foster
53 | Älgö, Sweden
Co-founder of ÖTILLÖ Swimrun
While Swimrun isn’t brand new, it’s been having a moment—thanks in part to the adventurous spirit and freewheeling, creative format that has participants compete in teams over varying swim and run legs. Not only did Michael Lemmel co-create the successful ÖTILLÖ brand, which finally landed on U.S. soil in 2020, but he was also one of the first race directors to restart multisport events during the pandemic—with some unique solutions to new problems.
Using tactics like spreading the race out over two days and having smaller “micro fields” race in waves, Lemmel and his team have been able to adapt—a typical trait of Swimrun athletes. “In essence, [it is a] fight for every way forward and learning from the losses,” he said of the ups and downs he’s faced as a race director during the COVID-19 pandemic. “A river always finds its way to the sea.”
Lemmel still sees uncertainty on the horizon next year, but he’s hopeful—especially about the evolution and popularity of Swimrun. “We will do whatever we can to put on responsible events without asking people to travel around the world,” he said. “We need to cater to local markets and Swimrun has come to the point where there is a local market.” – CF
ERIC LAGERSTROM AND PAULA FINDLAY
Both 31 | Troutdale, Oregon Professional Triathletes
It’s been a hard year for everyone, and no easier for pro triathletes whose jobs were put on indefinite hold with the worldwide cancellation of triathlons. While some took the opportunity to lay low, knock out big training blocks, start a family, or retire from the sport, Eric Lagerstrom and Paula Findlay have actually thrived. From February to April, the couple spent time living a slightly nomadic and off-the-grid lifestyle, quaran-teaming with Heather Jackson to train and enjoy themselves—swimming, biking, and running without a thought to racing at all.
Not only did they rediscover their love for multisport, but a new audience of tri fans also discovered Lagerstrom and Findlay for the first time. For years, Lagerstrom has been producing a regular YouTube video series that takes a behind-the-scenes look into his life, but ironically it wasn’t until the pandemic that the duo’s YouTube channel (“That Triathlon Life”) really took off. “We’ve been seeing 10 times the amount of views on our channel since everything started,” Lagerstrom said. “We’ve doubled our Instagram followers.” They also launched a “That Triathlon Life” line of clothing and accessories.
Though Lagerstrom said the surge in interest is absolutely not a conscious effort, the structure of a weekly video series has been an added bonus during the pandemic. “It’s created a natural cadence to the week that’s essential,” he said, with anywhere from four to 10 hours per week spent on editing and production.
Looking ahead, Findlay will seek to defend her title at Challenge Daytona— which is shaping up to be the pro race of the year—and Lagerstrom will either sherpa or race, depending on whether he can get a start. While no one can predict what will happen next year, Lagerstrom is planning on creating more great content—regardless of whether pro racing restarts in earnest: “If we can continue to be us and pay the bills, then there’s nothing better than that.” – CF
THE FRENCH ITU MEN’S TEAM
There’s a good chance that this decade will see the French ITU squad take over as the most dominant men’s team in the sport. While the British men had a stronghold though much of the past decade, and the American women have been holding court for a while, at this year’s World Triathlon Series World Championship, if you spoke French to the top six individuals in the men’s race, there was a 50/50 chance someone would speak French back. For perspective, the French men’s team has so much depth that they were able to sit out two-time world champion Vincent Luis and still get the win over the U.S. and Great Britain at the mixed relay world championships in Hamburg.
Besides Luis, the other two heavy hitters on the French squad include Léo Bergere, who took third at the Hamburg ITU world championships and has a handful of WTS top 10 finishes, and Dorian Coninx, who has a big win at the 2019 WTS Bermuda in his resume. Don’t forget about Pierre Le Corre, who has four WTS top 10s since 2018.
So why are the French men so adept in the ITU? A big reason lies in the French Grand Prix club system. While American triathlon Olympic hopefuls are swimming or running during their high school and college years, the French are cutting their teeth in a fiercely competitive regional short-course system with teams of various size, speed, and funding. A developing French athlete can start in the Grand Prix’s lower divisions before graduating to fast-and-furious competition right in their backyards against the likes of the Brownlee brothers, Javier Gomez, and many other ITU veterans who race for Grand Prix teams during breaks. While the Americans might have no idea who their next crop of triathlon Olympic hopefuls are, the French already have their eyes on the lower divisions of their Grand Prix league for 2024 and beyond.
36 | Newport News, Virginia
Aspiring Professional Triathlete
Last year, Sika Henry was aiming to become the first African-American female pro triathlete. She was fit and improving, ready to hit the standard—and then she crashed.
She doesn’t remember the accident during 70.3 Texas last April, but when she woke up in the emergency room, she thought: I quit. “My injuries were so extensive and gruesome, I just didn’t think it was worth it,” she said. But then she remembered who she was doing this for: all the kids who were following her journey, who didn’t have many other triathletes who looked like them. “It truly made me realize how much representation matters, that seeing someone you can identify with can have an impact on why you’d try a sport like triathlon,” she said. Five months later, she was back on a start line.
For Henry, who grew up swimming and was a long jumper at Tufts University, long-distance endurance sports weren’t necessarily an obvious choice. She tried a local sprint triathlon (in a swimsuit and on a mountain bike) and then just wanted to finish a marathon. Once. But by 2017, in between working as a project manager in market analytics, she was seeing some real results, making the podium in every 70.3 she did. “I was confident that if I found the right coach, someone who could train me at an elite level, I’d have a shot at qualifying for my pro card,” she said.
Henry signed on with coach Jonathan Caron and started training twice a day (on her lunch break and after work) to try to get on the podium at a large enough race and earn that pro license. She knew she was getting better, and then the crash—and then the pandemic.” I was in the best shape of my life heading into Challenge Cancun in April. Had that race taken place, I believe I would have achieved my goal,” she said. All of her races for this year have been rescheduled to next year, so she’ll be back out there chasing her goals. Just two years later than planned.
KATHRYN TAYLOR & KRISTI MOHN
45, 51 | Atlanta, Georgia, and Emporia, Kansas
Founders of ‘Girls Gone Gravel’
Gravel biking is huge right now. Just look around your local bike shop or dirt roads. Kathryn Taylor and Kristi Mohn aren’t just helping drive that growth, they’re also helping fund new programs and projects to make sure the growth is inclusive and welcoming of all riders.
Taylor was a burned-out triathlete when she found gravel and fell in love a few years ago. She started an Instagram account and a website to help other women get out on the dirt too. And then Mohn, who was working on the “Women Ride the World” program, reached out. It was fortuitous timing. Mohn started riding gravel back in 2004 (that was the only option in Emporia, Kansas) and has since worked as a race director for DK, the massively popular and massively hard gravel race in Kansas, and on the “200 Women 200 Miles” initiative at the race. Taylor was a fan. They teamed up.
Now they have a podcast, “Girls Gone Gravel,” a Facebook group with over 1,500 women in it, and a DIY Gravel Series that features top female gravel athletes and coaches walking riders through the basics. And that doesn’t even take into account all the articles, videos, and clinics the two of them work on all the time. Yes, there are barriers to getting into gravel, but the pair are committed to eliminating them.
“It’s just riding a bike on a different surface,” said Mohn, and with a whole different attitude. So when you hit the gravel in 2021 and find it to be an awesome and diverse place, you’ll have Taylor and Mohn at least partially to thank. – KO
56 | Colorado Springs, Colorado
Chief Sport Development Officer, USAT
You might have noticed college sports aren’t doing so well these days. Games and meets are getting canceled and teams are being disbanded or suspended in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now imagine trying to get a new NCAA sport off the ground in this environment.
But that’s exactly what Tim Yount is trying to do. Yount, who’s been with USA Triathlon for over 30 years in a variety of roles, currently heads up the NCAA effort (among other things). As an emerging sport for women, triathlon needs 40 schools to sign on with a varsity team by 2024 in order to become a fully fledged NCAA women’s sport. Right now, there are 35—three of which were added during the pandemic. “We only lost one [existing program dropping out during COVID-19]. To net two programs was a victory for us. No other sports saw additions during this time,” Yount said.
While the season got shifted to the spring and recruitment turned virtual, the foot stayed on the gas in large part thanks to Yount and his work with the varsity coaches and schools. USAT launched virtual combines to identify high school talent, committed to honoring its existing grants for schools (despite financial blows during this year), and started opening up the doors to international recruitment.
Yount is also constantly communicating with race directors at both the junior and collegiate level, and working with coaches, including the Varsity Coaches Association, to help them with virtual education and training their athletes. “Our NCAA coaches are doing some amazing work in these tough times,” he said. Yount is also the biggest cheerleader and champion of the athletes themselves. If triathlon manages to become an NCAA sport, they’ll be cheering the loudest for him. – KO
34 | Bozeman, Montana
Founder of the Diversify Triathlon Movement
Since she picked up triathlon 10 years ago, Vanessa Foerster has raced every single year “and loved every part of it.” But one thing she noticed on every start line was how few other Black women there were. And then she did Ironman Chattanooga in 2019, and she saw a huge increase in the diversity of athletes from the year before. “It’s not that BIPOC athletes aren’t interested in triathlon,” she said.
As a mental sports coach, she coaches a lot of athletes who want to qualify for Kona. “I know people. I know clubs and athletes,” she said. Then she thought about the barriers to entry and how she might be able to simply and concretely eliminate some of those barriers.
That’s when she posted on Instagram: “I have an idea.” And the Diversify Triathlon Movement (DTM) was started.
The idea was small. She just wanted to connect 30 new BIPOC athletes with coaches and get them support through their first race. The response, though, was overwhelming. “It really took off from there,” she said. She ended up signing up 50 athletes and 25 coaches for the first DTM class. With companies and organizations lining up to provide gear and take care of race registration fees for the athletes, she expects it to grow—likely next with two more classes of new and experienced BIPOC athletes, and then go from there. Those 50 athletes might inspire 50 more, who then see other people like them, she said, and it creates a ripple effect.
“You have to be the drop,” she said. “There have to be drops in the bucket to fill the bucket.” – KO
49 | Stavern, Norway
While working as an air ambulance rescue paramedic in his native Norway, Jørgen Melau wanted to find a way to stay in shape for his physically-demanding job. He discovered triathlon and soon began racing long-distance events, but it was only while standing on the shore of the Norseman swim course in 2015—and measuring a water temperature of 50 degrees F—that he began thinking about how potentially dangerous triathlon can be. This led to a complete career change for Melau, who is now working on a PhD in the science of cold-water swimming. He is also chief of the medical and safety crew at the Norseman race, which is widely considered to be one of the hardest, most extreme multisport events in the world.
Norseman is unique for many reasons, but one of those has to be its large research team dedicated to studying the effects on the athletes taking part. “I feel fortunate to be able to give something back, doing research to make the sport better,” Melau said. “We have done more and more research at Norseman. We currently do studies on lung functions, core temperature, biomarkers, heart function, and more. We also have produced some case reports on SIPE (swimming-induced pulmonary edema), which unfortunately seems to occur regularly at the race.
“Our ultimate goal is to make the sport safer. By that, we do not mean that the sport is unsafe in any way, but it is important to investigate if anything can be done to improve. Long-distance triathlon, especially the extreme races, are also a unique opportunity to see how the human body reacts when pushed to its limits. Cold water, warm weather, lots of hills, high-intensity for a long time—these extreme races have it all. We cannot replicate this very easily in a laboratory, so the opportunity to investigate at a race like Norseman is unique.” And even if you never do Norseman, his findings could be coming soon to a race near you. – Emma-Kate Lidbury
55 | London, England
Vice Chairman of the Professional Triathletes’ Organization (PTO)
After five years of stuttering and struggling to come together, 2020 finally saw the formation and launch of the Professional Triathletes’ Organization (PTO), a not- for-profit entity dedicated to giving pro athletes a voice in the sport. The PTO doubled down on its commitment with prize purses and payouts for its athletes during the pandemic. And in July, they appointed Chris Kermode vice chairman. A former pro tennis player who went on to lead the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), Kermode helped fuel unprecedented growth in prize money and revenue while at the ATP. He promoted tennis to a new generation of fans and attracted new audiences. In his role at the PTO, he has been tasked with all of the above for triathlon—as well as helping to make our sport more mainstream.
“The PTO business model and the triathlon market is compelling and the PTO has many similarities to professional tennis, which began to boom once the professionals started to act together to promote the sport and engage and expand their fan base,” Kermode said. “Also with the growth in triathlon, cycling, and other endurance sports, professional triathlon has enormous potential.”
If Kermode can do for triathlon what he helped do for tennis, we’ll be hearing more of his name—and the pros he’s working with—in 2021 and beyond. – EKL
46 | Mount Maunganui, New Zealand
It wasn’t too long ago that mentioning the menstrual cycle or female-specific physiology in endurance sports would have earned you an embarrassed glance or a “not now” response. Fortunately, the conversation around women’s and girls’ experiences in training and performance has progressed significantly, and that’s thanks in huge part to the work of Dr. Stacy Sims.
As a former-athlete-turned-scientist, Sims has brought a level of expertise and credibility to the conversation that has helped make a difference to so many female athletes. Her achievements rank high—in academia, industry, the publication of her first book, Roar, the launch of her online courses, the huge growth of her social media platforms—but in 2021, you can expect to see a great deal more from Sims. “The overall goal of all of these projects is to keep moving the conversation forward for women— across all ages and levels—to improve health, performance, sleep, and life in general,” she said.
After the successful launch of her first online course, she plans to roll out more in 2021, including ones focusing on younger female athletes, courses for coaches, and courses for women training and racing in hot conditions, such as Kona. She’s also on track to publish her second book, with Selene Yeager, which will be specific to the peri- and post-menopausal athlete. – EKL
46 | London, England
Chair, Zwift Cycling Esports Commission
Over the past few years, Zwift has gone from a gamification tool to enjoy indoor riding to the central software in an eSports landscape that may soon make it to the Olympic level. While virtual cycling and eSports were already on a steady, upward trajectory, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust them into the forefront. Case in point: the first-ever UCI Cycling eSports World Championships is set to take place on Dec. 8-9.
While ensuring fair competition is key to the mainstream success of any sport, it’s especially important in a format that relies on both proper equipment setup as well as reliable technology—in addition to human athletic ability, of course. In addition to ZADA (Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis), Zwift has created the Zwift Cycling eSports Commission—which George Gilbert chairs. With 25 years of experience in sports governance and a full-time role as a software engineer (he also has a Ph.D. in Astrophysics), Gilbert is driving the new sport’s refereeing and trying to keep up with its fast-paced growth.
Right now Gilbert and the Zwift team spend most of their energy setting up technical guides for athletes, ensuring they have the proper setup, combing through results looking for errors, and even thwarting blatant cheating efforts. Gilbert’s biggest role, though, is creating a system that requires less manpower to ensure fair results. It’s a tall task, but one Gilbert is excited to take on. “At the moment it might take us two to three days to get the results of a race out,” Gilbert said. “That’s fine for doing these one-off races, but if we’re truly going to scale up and have this same level of verification, then the investment in the backend computing power to be able to do that verification without huge amounts of manpower behind it is going to be critical.” – Liz Hichens
44 | El Paso, Texas
Race Director, Race El Paso, and USA Triathlon Board Member
How do we make triathlon feel more welcoming to all athletes? While this question has recently been pushed to the forefront of everyone’s minds, there are only a few people who have been quietly working on answers for years. One of them is Race El Paso race director Gabriela Gallegos.
After competing in a triathlon herself and then realizing her hometown of El Paso needed more opportunities to pursue an active lifestyle, Gallegos started the Mighty Mujer Triathlon. Through super sprint triathlons for women, she’s changed the narrative locally and has helped women feel empowered. And she got the entire thing aired on local TV coverage. The races are short, but they’re still tough, and that’s the magic in the format: Experienced triathletes compete alongside new ones, and the result is an inspired community that shares their love of triathlon with others. Her series has grown—there would have been events in four different cities in 2020 and she’s expanded into virtual events—but it’s Gallegos’ willingness to act locally and think globally that makes her impact spread.
She’s also on the USA Triathlon board, has spoken at several conferences, and is always willing to talk with up-and-coming race directors and triathlon industry members to share her secret sauce—which includes an investment in the local community with free events in the lead-up to help people get to the start line. “It’s difficult and it’s not necessarily profit-driven,” she said. “But that’s where we’ve really developed triathletes … Those kind of organic community building events are part of why I think Mighty Mujer has grown, and that’s also how I think you reach communities of color, because so many social groups are somewhat segregated. People invite their friends and a lot of times their friends look like them. Then you see groups pulled in in a way that you can’t necessarily do organized outreach for.” It’s a model that can be learned from and expanded in the years to come. – LH
42 | Encinitas, California
Director of Content Production, Ironman
The former editor-in-chief for Triathlete, Julia Polloreno is now part of the Ironman team charged with keeping triathletes engaged and swim-bike-running through the pandemic. While virtual racing was always on the cards for Ironman, it quickly accelerated those efforts earlier this year with a successful Ironman VR series. By the end of the summer, Polloreno and the team had figured out a way to broadcast (via Facebook Watch) pro triathletes competing across swim, bike (on the trainer via Rouvy), and run. And triathletes have tuned in, with over 13 million unique views as of the end of September. For Polloreno, it’s been fun to see pro triathletes engage with the multisport community in a way that’s never been done before.
Even as in-person racing returns, Polloreno and the Ironman team will work to find a blend of sharing stories and broadcasts from both virtual and in-person race formats into 2021 and beyond. With over a decade of experience covering the sport, she’s excited to continue telling stories and shifting the narrative of what it means to be a triathlete.
“There’s a changing perception in what a triathlete looks like,” she said. “When I first came into the sport, I think I shared that perception of triathletes being super hardcore, ultra-fit, Type-A people, and in telling the story of sport and the people who do it I’ve realized that it really can be inclusive sport and anyone can do it.” – LH